“I know I’m going to get slammed for this,” Lou Reed says of The Raven, his new double-CD treatment in song and spoken word of the stories and verse of nineteenth-century noir pioneer Edgar Allan Poe. “I’m used to that,” Reed adds in a so-what voice over his pasta in a Manhattan restaurant. Packed with special guests such as David Bowie, saxophonist Ornette Coleman and the Blind Boys of Alabama, The Raven is Reed’s expanded version of Poetry, his 2001 theatrical collaboration with director Robert Wilson. The album is also in the electric-literature tradition of the ex-Velvet Underground singer-guitarist’s solo albums Berlin (1973), Street Hassle (1978) and New York (1989). “The affinity was so deep,” Reed says of adapting and, in some cases, rewriting Poe for The Raven. “I knew I could do no wrong.”
As a kid, did you discover Poe through his stories or through the Vincent Price movies?
Oh, the movies. And that’s not really Poe. He’s up there with Shakespeare, a heavy-duty, world-class writer. His language can get very arcane. But when people read “The Raven” now, they get the idea: Something’s tapping on the door at midnight, and it’s a big bird. If you want to know what it’s like to be awake at five in the morning and paranoid, this is where to go.
How did you get Bowie to sing the role of the homicidal midget jester Hop Frog?
It was his first choice. Why? I don’t know [laughs]. I was happy because he does those Bowie-esque background vocals that I love and always wished he would do more. I love when he goes high — no one else can do that. And Ornette — he comes in with a porkpie hat, doesn’t have the right reed with him. But he starts playing, and we’re in tears. When I was a student at New York University, I trailed around after him, listening to him in the clubs through the window.
Is there a record people would be surprised to know that you love?
“The Fat Man,” by Fats Domino . I was a big fan of Meade “Lux” Lewis and Albert Ammons — those great 78s of boogie-woogie piano. Then I heard “The Fat Man,” and I went, “Oh, my God!” It was one of the first records I ever bought, out on asshole Long Island, the armpit of the world. That’s what I wanted to be doing. Put a guitarto it, mix it together with “Ooby Dooby,” by Roy Orbison, and “Red Hot,” by Billy Riley — and you’ve got me.
Did you see the classic rock & roll artists live in the 1950s?
No. I was working in bar bands from fourteen. But I used to go up to Harlem. I met this guy, Leroy Kirkland, who was the arranger for the orchestra at the Alan Freed rock E roll shows. I’d go with him trying to get [the Fifties doo-wop group] the Harptones or somebody to record one of my little songs. Isn’t that a thing of fantasy?
Some of the best songs on The Raven are ballads, such as “Who Am I (Tripitena’s Song).” What ballads influenced you?
“Stay With Me,” Lorraine Ellison , written and produced by Jerry Ragavoy. My life changed when I heard that. I also listened to a lot of Otis Redding. I can’t do those things vocally. But I can do a lot more than I used to. On the Magic and Loss tour, Jimmy Scott taught me how to sing. We would come out, do little things together, and he would say after the show, “You can do that.” I got his seal of approval. It took me thirty years to earn it. But I’m slow. I have to work hard at things, three or four times as hard as other people. It’s hard for me to read directions. If I write down a phone number, I have to do it two or three times.
Are you amazed the Velvets are still a touchstone for bands like the Strokes and Interpol?
I always thought we were the greatest thing in the world — that combination of sounds and personalities. I’d adjusted to the idea that no one else thought so. But I’ve always been on the outside. I’m not getting nominated for a Grammy. I’m not in the charts.
You are having the last laugh.
I’m having many a chuckle.